How misinformation persuaded my neighbor, and why I chose not to “educate” him

by Fenja De Silva-Schmidt

Recently I chatted to my neighbor and we happened to stumble upon the topic of climate change. He told me: “I don’t think the earth is really heating up, big changes don’t happen so fast. This so-called warming effect is physically not plausible, even many scientists say so – I learnt about that when I followed the climate conference on YouTube.” I was surprised about many aspects of this statement – that my neighbor, a well-educated man who reads medical journals for fun, is a climate change “ignorant” or “denier”, that climate conferences are streamed on YouTube, and that denialist positions are supposedly spread there.

Further into the conversation, I understood that he was referring not to the UN climate summit, but to a “climate conference” organized by the most influential German climate change denial blog, also present on YouTube. With a quick online search, I later found that the UN climate summit is indeed also streamed on YouTube.

To deny the existence of problematic anthropogenic global warming, media users ignore common information sources, trusting in misinformation from “alternative media” instead.
Picture by Pexels / Pixabay

I then wondered: Why did my neighbor fall for the fake conference and miss the correct information that was also present on the same media channel? Communication research has lots of useful theories on these questions: part of the problem might be filter bubbles (your online search only shows results similar to what you’ve looked at before) and confirmation bias (people look for information that fortifies their precast attitudes and beliefs). In addition, videos from the COP following the meetings that last for hours are not attractive to watch (the video ranking highest in my quick search was 5:30 hours long). Thus, there is also a communication deficit on the side of the scientific community.

So what did I do in reaction to my neighbor’s revelation of his ignorance? For some time following our conversation, I kept sending him links to summaries of the scientific consensus and to information on how to identify strategic misinformation on climate change – which he politely ignored or dismissed later.

At first, I was deeply disappointed that he refused to see the truth and continued to deny the existence of climate change. But then I remembered the main reason why I think knowledge about climate change is important: because it can be necessary to act against climate change. And although my neighbor does not want to acquire this knowledge, in his actions he is already pretty climate friendly: He is a vegetarian who only uses energy-saving lightbulbs and devices. He is very good at reducing waste (we share a common rubbish bin, so I know), and when he needed a new car, he even bought one with a combination of combustion and electric engine. Although all these actions were motivated by interests other than saving the climate – i.e. saving money –, I reasoned there is no need to “educate” him on the topic. In the end, it reminded me that knowledge alone of climate change and its consequences is not enough to motivate people for climate protection – and that sometimes, there can be climate protection without knowledge.